Procrastination feels incredibly good in the moment. Whether you procrastinate by watching a YouTube video on motivational cats or checking out creepy Wikipedia entries, it always feels so satisfying, rebellious even – you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. But it’s a shallow satisfaction because behind it lurks the terrible anxiety that precious minutes to do important things are being wasted
Why do we procrastinate? It’s a self-defeating behavior that many of us engage in and, according to the American Psychological Association, 20% of people do chronically.
Before you get distracted (if I didn’t already lose you to the links at the top), let’s get into it.
Why do we procrastinate?
It’s not just jobs that people procrastinate at. The aforementioned 20% delay everything from housework to relationship decisions to income taxes. Psychology Today explains that it’s a learned behavior, not an inherent one and it’s unhealthy. If it’s so unhealthy, why do we keep doing it?
It’s likely that the task at hand, the one a procrastinator is actively avoiding, is one that brings up negative feelings and anxiety. They could be avoiding the task for any number of reasons, it could be a task they’re afraid of failing, one that is difficult, or one that they’re unsure of how to do properly. In order to avoid these feelings, the procrastinator does something else, thereby temporary eschewing these bad feelings. This is referred to as “giving in to feel good” and it’s a behavior that gets reinforced exactly because it feels so good.
Beating the Urge to Procrastinate
I have bad news and good news. Procrastination is a hard behavior to modify, but it can be done. The first way is by practicing the opposite behavior: self-control or self-regulation. Try working on small habits or behaviors first, like not biting your nails for an hour. Work up to longer amounts of time avoiding the behavior (not biting your nails for a whole day). Practicing this can strengthen resolve to do what needs to be done. Think of it like a muscle you need to exercise daily.
During an unpleasant task, it’s important to not focus on how you feel about or during the task, but to just get it done. Acknowledge the feelings, but don’t give in to them. Remember that what may make you feel good in the short term will make you feel worse in the long term; tell yourself that while you may not feel great right now, you’ll feel really good after the task is done.
If you are more of a step-by-step person try this:
- Create a list of what you need to do.
- Write down a sentence of what you intend to do. (This is different from the list, it’s a positive statement of what you will do.)
- Set goals that you’ll be able to accomplish, i.e. I’ll return 5 of my emails by 4 p.m.
- Break out each task into smaller, easy to manage steps.
- Make it meaningful; ask yourself “why am I doing this?”
- Promise a reward to yourself at the end of the task.
- Get rid of any task that you are never truly going to do.
Don’t forget biological needs. If you’re feeling tired or hungry, your attempts at self-control will be more of a struggle than usual.
Continuing on the procrastination path is one of the surest ways to avoid success in life. Hopefully by knowing the underlying cause of procrastination (a way to regulate emotions), we can find a solution that will enable us to be more productive and feel better.
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